Preparing to Study Abroad

Recently, my school asked me to help lead a meeting for everyone who is going abroad next autumn. Besides a brief frisson of jealousy, there was excitement and anticipation for the adventures these new study abroad students would get to experience. Each of them will take away something different from their time abroad, even if they are all in the same city or university. They will all get a chance to grow so quickly!

If you’re planning on going abroad, definitely talk to people who have been to your location or just been abroad! Talk to people who are similar to you in interests and age. Talk to someone who is just as outgoing as you are, has a similar sense of humor or has similar habits. Of course, I am not recommending that you ferret out your long-lost twin but when you talk to other people about their experience, remember all of these different factors. They will make a difference.

There are some basic questions you should consider and probably learn more about. They are logistical things because most people are already thinking about how to make friends and what to do to get a visa. My explanations as to why I think these points are important focus on the transition from the United States to another country. They are issues for transitioning from anywhere to another country, I just have no experience with transitioning from any other country or system.

In no particular order, think about:

1. How does the country you are visiting treat/view your gender or race?

Some countries will be extremely forward to women, especially foreign women. The United States is very into personal space and has a very strict definition of sexual harassment. Other countries will have different standards regarding space and touch, so be prepared, do some research. When it comes to race, it depends on where you are going. If you are white and you go to China, the curiosity is something you should prepare for. Especially if you are a blonde or redhead. If you are Asian, be prepared to be greeted by random strangers in some Asian language. But don’t let the change scare you off! Don’t become paranoid. Just be aware.

2. What are the differences in school structure?

The United States is notorious for supporting their students in a variety of ways. Either by having libraries open 24 hrs/day, professors who are always available and willing to discuss questions or TAs to take the place of professors, most US colleges provide a safety net. This probably won’t be true when you go abroad so prepare yourself for a different level of commitment from your peers and professors and yourself.

3. How is your home country viewed?

Again, as a US citizen this is something you will definitely be aware of. There’s both a fascination and general disdain for Americans. While many were fascinated by the fact that I was from New York, there were still questions of why Americans did x or y when it was so clearly wrong. Be prepared for misconceptions and wrong information but don’t get defensive as it definitely goes both ways.

4. What will the weather be like?

Warm? Cold? Rainy? Anything close to what you’re used to? Don’t pack your suitcases to full capacity as you probably will be buying clothing while abroad. Also, don’t pack for only one climate. If you want to travel, think about it beforehand so you can pack for those locations as well. There’s no need to bring your entire closet at all. Bring your favorite pieces and be sure you can use things in a variety of outfits for all different kinds of situations.

5. Will you travel while abroad, if so, where?

If you are planning on traveling, think about whether you have friends who are also abroad. Where are they? Would they want to travel somewhere with you? Could you visit them? Would they want to stay in hostels or hotels? What kind of budget are they on and how does it compare to yours? Plan early so you can make the most of your breaks or weekends!

6. What will your living situation be like?

Flat or dorm? Do you have to cook or clean? How do you deal with messes? If you’re in a flat, what will you do if your flatmates are messy? If you have to clean, do you know how? Where are the laundry machines? What are the supermarkets nearby? What are the most popular detergent brands, etc.? Don’t expect the companies to be the same as they are at home. Even washing your clothes might be different! I had always put the detergent in a different compartment in the washing machine but while abroad I had to pour it on top of the clothes.

7. What are you going to do to contact others?

If you’re abroad, chances are the cell phone plan you have at home will make you pay an arm and a leg if you use your phone in a different country. So, what do you do? What companies are the biggest in the country you are studying in? Is a prepaid or monthly plan more cost-efficient considering your habits? While it would be amazing if you didn’t have to have a phone, chances are you’ll want to contact the friends you make while you’re abroad, so you should probably plan for a phone.

8. How many pieces of luggage can you bring/manage?

While I was abroad, I met a few people who had 3 giant pieces of luggage with them. They then struggled to get to the airport when they left because nobody can comfortably manage 3 pieces of luggage with 2 hands. Think ahead. How are you going to get to where you are living after you land at the airport? Will you be able to manage your luggage by yourself?

9. And, of course, language

This doesn’t really need explanation. Be sure to have some basic phrases ready. Be open to learning that some phrases you learned in school aren’t actually common or used at all. Definitely be ready to laugh at yourself!

Good luck! Be willing to explore your personality and be more outgoing or try new things. Have a lot of fun and make the most of every day. Explore on your own or meet up with friends, but definitely explore.

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